I. FRANKNESS AND TRUTH FROM A MAIN CHARACTER
“Miss Eyre is rather a brazen miss,” wrote one reader, referring to the passionate main character of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel. Indeed, the novel received unfavorable reviews from its early critics for going against deeply entrenched codes of conduct and femininity. Jane’s outbursts of emotion, her then-radical assertion of the woman’s right to go beyond roles assigned by custom and her rejection of borders imposed by class caused controversy. In fact, Elizabeth Rigby calls Jane “unchristian,” saying that Jane Eyre couldn’t have been written by a female. She ultimately says that even if the book was penned by a woman, it was penned by one “who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex.” (Weisser, p. xiv)
This nonconformity, however, is what renders the novel an accurate picture of the life and times of its main character. Jane Eyre can be compared to a view through an unclouded lens: the character speaks without regard for the conventions of the day; therefore, we are given an uninhibited view of the character and an honest, unrestrained response to the issues during her time.
Moreover, while Jane Eyre is classified as historical fiction today, it fell under the category of contemporary realist fiction during the time of its publication. Its author drew characters and plot elements from her own life, thus it can be treated as a reliable account of England during Bronte’s time, despite its fictionalization.
Bronte was wary of theatrical productions of her novel because she feared they would misrepresent her work, and in a way she was right. Most productions selectively emphasized the Gothic and Romantic elements of the novel at the expense of its views on religion and the condition of women (Weisser, p. xii), which are noteworthy as well. Jane Eyre’s passages on women and religion actually need more emphasis, given that much of the controversy surrounding the novel stems from the Bronte’s brand of Christianity and proto-feminism.
II. RELIGION, HUMAN FEELINGS AND HUMAN DESIRES
Readers are given three pictures of religion in Jane Eyre. First, we are given the brand of religion from Brocklehurst, which Jane deems too hypocritical and consequently rejects. The hypocrisy is painted through the contrasting appearances of Brocklehurst’s family and the students of Lowood. There is a scene where Brocklehurst orders that the curls of a Lowood student be cut. Because Brocklehurst espouses the Evangelical view that Christianity requires the purging of pride, he subjects Lowood students to these kinds of humiliation and deprivation. Note, however, that Brocklehurst practices his evangelism on Lowood students while his own family takes on a gay, luxurious appearance. This hypocrisy justifies the novel’s rejection of the nineteenth century Evangelical movement.
Second, Helen Burns’ brand of religion is one that forgives all wrongs in the name of Christianity. Jane rejects this, because she cannot train herself wholeheartedly for martyrdom like Helen’s, even if she admires Helen for it. The fact that Helen dies very young implies that her passivity is not suited for the trials that a person will face throughout the course of life.
Third, we are given the brand of religion of St. John Rivers, which casts the Christian in the role of saviour to the heathens and deliverer of God’s word to new flocks. Jane rejects this as well, because this type of religion seeks glory (which Jane does not desire) and forces her to curb her feelings and passions. Like Helen’s brand of religion, this forces her to deny her nature.
But while Jane rejects all three models of religion, she does not reject God or morality. This is exemplified by Bertha, one of Jane’s foils. Bertha responds to conflict in ways that Jane cannot. For example, Bertha succumbs to her desires and feelings, as evidenced by her promiscuity and alcoholism. Meanwhile, Jane denies her desires and feelings when she refuses to commit adultery by marrying Rochester while his first wife exists, because God forbids adultery. Jane rejects the models of religion from Brocklehurst, Helen and St. John, but eventually she discovers her own brand of Christianity: one that is not oppressive and hypocritical like Brocklehurst’s and not unnatural like Helen’s and St. John’s. It obeys God while allowing Jane her earthly pleasures and emotional desires.
Bronte’s views on religion were a reflection of how the events of the era filtered into her writing. During the parliamentary debates in 1829 regarding the Catholic question, the English debated on whether or not Catholics should be granted political rights equal to those of Protestants (Center for Research on Social Organization, p.1). These debates imply that there is the question of which religion – Protestantism or Roman Catholicism – deserve supremacy over England. Bronte may be espousing her own brand of morality in answer to these debates. Since Jane’s religion was not specified, and the reader only has her brand of morality to judge, Bronte could be saying that a person should not be judged according to one’s label (Catholic or Protestant), but should be judged instead by how one answers the call to be upright. Does the person’s response break laws of the Bible? Does the person’s response strike a balance between moral duty and practicability? Or is the response too hypocritical? The pictures of religion throughout Jane Eyre tackle these questions to a great extent.
III. LOVE AND SOCIAL CLASS IN THE VICTORIAN PERIOD
Jane Eyre is deeply critical of the social hierarchy in England during the Victorian period. Jane lashes out against class prejudice in certain parts of the novel, the most famous of which is her declaration of love for Rochester:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you and full as much a heart! …. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities nor even of mortal flesh; it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood equal at God’s feet, equal – as we are! (Bronte, p. 294)
Moreover, Jane does not adhere to the value system of the Victorian period. Rochester’s crowd (Blanche and her peers) are superior to Jane based on the Victorian social hierarchy, which puts a premium on income. In this light, Blanche and Rochester should marry, and Jane should not dream of a union with Rochester. But Jane believes that intellectual equality and kindred spirits – and not income or any other arbitrary Victorian standard – should be the basis for a union. Thus she says of Blanche and Rochester: “I would scorn at such a union” (Bronte, p. 294).
However, the novel ends with Jane not actually being able to defy limits imposed by class. She gets an inheritance. Meanwhile, Rochester’s wealth is diminished because Thornfield burns to the ground, and he loses an eye and a limb. They do not get married while they are from different classes in society. They both had to move (Jane up the ladder of income, Rochester down the ladder of income and social status) to be able to marry. This may be because Bronte’s ideas were too radical for the time, and to write about a union that defied all the conventions of society may not come off as believable at all. Or Bronte may have changed their positions in society to offer readers the possibility of a marriage with tangible indications of equality.
Furthermore, it is acknowledged in the novel that marriage – an expected state for a female to go into – can be a relationship between equals, despite the fact that women were generally thought of as inferior to men during the Victorian period. As Jane says: “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. . . . To be together is for us is to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. . . . We are precisely suited in character” (Bronte, p. 525); this not only establishes that a woman can marry not only for social mobility; she can marry because she found someone who suits her well. it also reinforces the belief that compatibility in intellect and character – and not income or social class – should be the basis for a good match.
IV. FEMININITY AND FREEDOM
Jane’s assertion that a woman’s horizons should be broadened is not to be misinterpreted as a denunciation of the Victorian values of service and domesticity. Note that the novel begins in girlhood and ends with Jane’s marriage and motherhood, following the Victorian trajectory of the female’s life based on her purpose (Weisser, p.xxv). Bronte has been cast as a proto-feminist, because she created female protagonists that do not charm men to secure their futures. But she does not push for the woman’s complete autonomy in Jane Eyre. In fact, marriage and domesticity are also presented in the novel as a reward for Jane’s morality. She simply says that women should be allowed to deviate if they wish from the roles and duties imposed by custom. This is evident when Jane says:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded of their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing the piano and embroidering bags. (Bronte, p. 123)
Freedom in the novel is not limited to the freedom endorsed by feminism today. Jane also seeks the kind of freedom that will fulfil her need for autonomy while still allowing her to fulfil the need to belong. She is presented different forms of freedom throughout the novel. First, Rochester offers her the freedom to liberate her passions when he offers to make her his mistress. She rejects this, because to liberate her passions in such a way would mean enslavement to her feelings. Afterwards, St. John offers her the freedom to exercise her talents to the fullest by becoming a missionary. She rejects this as well, because this would mean enslavement to Grace through the obliteration of Nature, because she could not give rein to her passions. There is also the presence of Diana and Mary: two women who are unmarried and therefore unsubjugated by any male. Jane appreciates the self-sufficiency of Diana and Mary, but she does not conform to their kind of freedom as well, because it cannot give her emotional sustenance.
Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman’s quest for emotional and spiritual fulfilment. While it has been called unchristian, unfeminine and the like, it remains a favorite both in and out of the academic reading lists. (Weisser, p.xiii)This endurance of Jane Eyre may be attributed to the same reasons why it has met disapproval: Jane’s intensity of feeling, her attempt to strike a balance between her moral obligations and earthly pleasures, her unabashed declaration that she is equal to Rochester despite their differences in wealth. These propose a middle ground for all the conflicting elements in life: Nature vs. Grace, Passion vs. Reason and Love vs. Autonomy. This middle ground makes Jane a believable and relatable character and allows the novel to retain popular success despite the passage of time and the evolution of tastes.
Moreover, the issues tackled in the novel remain relevant to the present time. First, there is still the question of how to practice the Christian faith. At present, Christians are still divided into labels: Catholic, Protestant and many others. The pictures of religion in the novel serve as points for reflection for people exploring their Christianity.
Second, the novel discusses women’s place in society, an issue that has not yet been resolved. Bronte issued her declaration of women’s rights in 1847, but women’s rights still have a long way to go in the context of the present, and Jane’s struggles can still effectively mirror the struggles of women at present. This does not include only the broadening of the roles that women are supposed to take on, but also the power play between man and women in love.
Jane Eyre may have been written hundreds of years ago, but its endurance is proof of its value. It is fortunate that despite the fact that women and women writers were not taken as seriously as men during the Victorian period, Bronte pursued her dream to write. If not, we would be deprived of a deeply valuable account of life during the Victorian period, and we would be deprived of great insights without the voice of Jane.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
Weisser, Susan Ostrov. Introduction. Jane Eyre. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
Center for Research on Social Organization. “British Catholic Emancipation, Prototype of Reform?” Online. Internet. December 1980. Available URL: http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/50994/1/220.pdf